Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 102 (April 2000): 63-67.
Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus. By Thomas Cahill. Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday. 353 pp. $24.95.
Reviewed by Francis Martin
This is the third volume in a projected seven–volume series entitled The Hinges of History, in which Thomas Cahill means "to retell the story of the Western world as the story of the great gift–givers, those who entrusted to our keeping one or another of the singular treasures that make up the patrimony of the West." The previous volumes—How the Irish Saved Civilization and The Gifts of the Jews—were extremely popular, and Cahill follows the same basic format here, presenting an introductory description of the world in which the gift–giver appears, a history of the protagonist (in the first volumes a people, not an individual), and finally an assessment of the gift–giver’s lasting effects on history.
Cahill begins this book by treating the three concentric circles that made up the world of Jesus and those who were influenced by him and wrote about him—namely, the Roman social and political environment, the Greek cultural and philosophical world, and the Jewish spirit that was both indebted to and suspicious of the other two. Here Cahill displays admirable stylistic and synthesizing skills. He continues by offering a view, based on the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, of "the Jesus the Apostles knew" that, while idiosyncratic in its use of the historical method and mesmerized by "Markan priority," does mediate part of their witness to Jesus. The section’s popularization of recent scholarly work that reinserts Jesus into his Jewish milieu is especially useful for a general audience.
It is to Cahill’s credit that, in marked distinction to the Jesus Seminar made popular by the media, he does not restrict his attempt to understand Jesus to a study of the Synoptic Gospels. In his third chapter, on "Paul’s Jesus," he takes Paul’s understanding seriously and shows its continuity with the Gospel witness, the actual written form of which postdates Paul’s letters. This procedure allows us to see that the Gospels themselves were not written to propagate, enshrine, or defend the memory of a dead master, but to bring readers into contact with the living Lord. Thus, the events of Jesus’ life are recounted in the Gospels not only as they transpired in Palestine, but also as they exist now in his risen humanity. The Pauline and other writings are more explicit about the ongoing presence of the risen Christ—something not absent from, but not emphasized in, the Synoptics. However, to use an insight borrowed from Bernard Lonergan, this viewpoint sublates—that is, preserves and raises up—the theologically interpreted history of the earlier tradition, which in its depth and subtlety has a unique capacity to mediate the reality of Christ.
Cahill continues with "Luke’s Jesus" (the third Gospel) and "The People of the Way" (Acts). Such a juxtaposition allows us to see a Gospel writer aware of Jesus’ ongoing influence—his effective history (to use Gadamer’s term)—and once again points to the importance of studying the whole of the New Testament in order to understand Jesus. Cahill correctly points, for example, to Luke’s understanding of Christian poverty, friendship, communal living, and care for the stranger or enemy as based on the teaching and example of Jesus and carried on within the early Christian communities. This observation is, it should be noted, an important contribution to the search for the historical Jesus.
The final aspect of the New Testament Cahill takes up is the Johannine tradition. He uses the same approach as before, considering both continuity and development. Here, however, it would have been helpful if Cahill were clearer about what he means by "continuity." He notes, for instance, that "none of the believers we have encountered so far . . . considered Jesus to be God." If by "God" Cahill means what the New Testament means by Theos—that is, God the Father (and there are only eight exceptions to this meaning out of 1,314 occurrences)—then there is no problem. If, however, he means that no previous text relates Jesus to the Divinity in a unique manner, then the situation is much more complex. It is precisely on issues of this sort that the limits of historical reasoning become obvious and the need for more sophisticated philosophical and theological categories becomes apparent. Theological texts have to be interpreted theologically.
The seventh and last chapter, "The World After Jesus," eloquently points to ancient and modern individuals and groups who have been faithful to the Spirit of Jesus, including those who have seen better by the gospel light than some who are privileged to carry it. Deep stirrings of the human heart, a cherished desire for peace, a conviction that goodness can overcome the apparent triumph of evil—these permeate our civilization. Jesus is "the mysterious ingredient that laces everything we taste, the standard by which all moral actions are finally judged."
This is an earnest and good book, but it has some serious flaws. Cahill is basically loyal to the New Testament witness, but he often relies on the discipline (it is not a science) of history, notably a particular school of interpretation, to shape his account of events whose inner and transcendent source confers what he himself describes as "a meaning beyond the chaotic surface of events." Of course, every story of Jesus is an interpretation, but those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and the others have an authority, an aptitude for the subject matter, and a God–given vision of reality that cannot be equaled by the tools of modern historiography.
Other interpretations may rightly seek understanding through the historical disciplines, but they cannot replace or sit in judgment over the New Testament interpretation. History is an invaluable servant in faith’s effort to render intelligible the reality of Jesus, to be sure, but it is not the master. The present abundance of fanciful lives of Jesus reminds us that particular historical interpretations derive from prior assumptions and commitments that often go unacknowledged. We have the Gospel according to Crossan and the Gospel according to Mark—take your pick.
I find, too, that the well–woven texture of the narrative is disrupted by some of the author’s extravagant preoccupations and prejudices. These are signaled by a sudden shrill change in tone, especially when it comes to discussions of sex (including the perpetual virginity of Mary) and encounters with authority (though the author’s "arrogant churchmen" admittedly do exist).
The strong points of the book are, first and foremost, that it centers on the Cross of Christ as God’s means of reconciling us to Himself even as it stands in judgment over our grasping domination of others. This is Jesus’ "gift" to history and his paradoxical promise of meaning and life to everyone. Secondly, as I have mentioned, Cahill takes seriously the witness of the whole of the New Testament and thus avoids the myopia of those who wish to see the significance of Jesus exclusively in his teaching and who bypass the challenge of his sacrificial death and his continuing presence among us. Finally, though the book lacks the merits of more careful studies, it will reach many who would not otherwise have access to the gift of Jesus.
Francis Martin, a priest in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., is Professor of Biblical Studies at the John Paul II Institute on Marriage and Family.